Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and 80% of the attendees at his church are single. As a result, Keller has a great deal of experience counseling and teaching singles in his church. This book draws from those counseling experiences, from his 37-year marriage with his wife Kathy, and from a nine-week sermon series on marriage that Keller preached in 1991 (which is the most listened-to sermon series to date at Redeemer Presbyterian). Keller writes to both married and unmarried people, seeking to point them to the Scriptures so that the reader can face “the complexities of commitment with the wisdom of God.” Throughout the book, Keller expounds primarily upon Ephesians 5 and Genesis 2, using these passages to point the reader to God’s design and purpose behind marriage. Keller starts from the ground-up. He is aware of all the confusion surrounding marriage and keenly attuned to the culture’s perversion of marriage as an institution and wants to answer basic questions such as: “What is the purpose of marriage? What is it for? What does God intend it to be?”
Keller opens the book by identifying the drastic decline of and ambivalence towards marriage in western culture, and contrasts it with the blessing that it can be within a Biblical framework as he brings Ephesians 5 to the contemporary culture. He points the reader to the Gospel, asserting that “the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another” (47), which is a concept that Keller develops throughout the book. Keller exposes and brings to light the incredible amount of sin that we have in our relationships (focusing primarily on self-centeredness), stressing the necessity and power of the Holy Spirit to bring two people together in a successful marriage. He also writes about the characteristics of true Biblical, covenantal love, discussing issues of commitment, the role and place of feelings, and the nature of love as a decision.
Keller expounds upon the purposes of marriage, developing the concept of spiritual friendship and companionship. He continues these thoughts by focusing upon the necessity of truth and love (in its various forms and representations) in relationships and how the two are to interact in a context of grace. Kathy Keller (Tim’s wife) writes about gender roles in marriage, pointing the reader to the specific and yet interrelated roles of the Trinity. There is a chapter specifically for singles, which provides insightful and valuable guidelines for relationships before marriage. Keller also writes about the realities and misperceptions of sex while pointing to the glory and grandeur of it when practiced the way in which God intended. The Gospel is frequently affirmed throughout the book as Keller points the reader to the beauty of love as it has been demonstrated to us in Christ.
Keller writes in a very clear, thoughtful, conversational and logical way. He has an ease to his writing style, in which he is simultaneously down-to-earth and intellectual. Keller keeps all of his thoughts “in-reach”, neither being too elementary for the academic nor too scholarly for the layperson. He uses many examples throughout the book, putting his experiences as a counselor to good use. These examples are highly effective, bringing concepts down to real, everyday levels so that the reader can internalize and better understand what (for example) “self-centeredness” truly is and its many manifestations. Keller knows what the reader is going to think and he addresses those thoughts, leaving the reader with a comprehensive understanding of his analysis and arguments.
Although the book is entitled “The Meaning of Marriage” and speaks about marriage in specific ways, my status as “single” did not make the book irrelevant. Keller’s specific words to those who are married are informative for everyone, because his purpose in writing the book is broad; he wants to reestablish a Biblical vision for marriage, which is not something specific to a married couple or to those who seek to become married. He seeks to abolish ideas and opinions that we have about marriage and replace them with cold hard facts based upon his experience (as husband and counselor) and his exposition of Scripture. This is a book about relationships, more than a book on marriage. Keller is speaking to his readers individually as well as corporately, pointing them to their need for the Gospel in relationships, particularly in marriage. The concepts Keller develops for fruitful, lasting, God-honoring marriages are applicable in all relationships – which is a testament to Keller’s ceaseless love for and focus upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Keller has an incredible ability to convict his readers and speak to specific issues that truly get to the heart of the matter. The book is not written to be a counseling book, but his conversational style and specificity often make it seem as such, making his book even more impactful and effective. Keller is not afraid to speak his mind, and he hits on some very sensitive topics that deal with the heart of the reader (such as the idolization of feelings and self-centered approach to “love”). He challenges the reader to ponder the question “what do you want?” even when it was not specifically asked in the text, as a result of his thoughtful and deep analyses.
Keller wants the reader to see that marriage itself isn’t the problem; rather, its people that are the problem. Sin parasitically infects every part of our being and is the root of every problem that we perceive and experience in relationships, which makes marriage as difficult as it is. We have selfish thoughts, skewed opinions, flattened values, and unrealistic expectations of marriage. We idolize the wrong things, making marriage (and many of other things in life) “me-centered”, rather than “God-centered” in nearly every way. Rather than focusing on the spouse and seeking how we can best serve, love, and support them, we try to see what we can get out of them and how they can best serve us. The focus is completely wrong, and does not at all reflect the relationship Christ has with His church.
Self-gratification, misplaced sources of fulfillment, and immediate satisfaction have become the focus of marriage; we no longer view marriage as a covenantal commitment, but as a relationship akin to that between a consumer and that which he consumes. Personal fulfillment has become the goal in marriage; service has no part in the equation. With this in mind, Keller writes an entire chapter on self-centeredness and its dangers, and also discusses what exactly is “love”. It’s not a feeling or an emotion, rather it’s a decision measured by how much you are willing to give yourself to someone.
The greatest strength of this book is that Keller is unwaveringly devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Keller is incessantly passionate about the Gospel, and sees it as the core to having healthy relationships. He constantly hearkens back to the necessity for Christ and His work in our lives if we are to have God-honoring, Christ-centered relationships, imploring the reader to turn to Christ in light of our deep brokenness and selfish hearts. Keller wants the reader to see that one of God’s great purposes in marriage is “to picture the relationship between Christ and His redeemed people forever” (46), and He brings that out very clearly in the book. Keller says: “Marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out and your life from the ground up… the hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level” (48). The Gospel and marriage explain each other very effectively, and Keller brings this fact to life in his book. Keller reminds us that “We love because He first loved us”, and because of that love, we extend grace, forgiveness, and truth in our relationships, which is crucial in a healthy marriage.
Not all books on marriage are created equal. Keller’s book is incredibly effective and helpful in that its reliance upon the Gospel enables him to speak to the brokenness and imperfections of our relationships (specifically marriage) with a hope that can only come through Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. I highly commend this book to anyone and everyone – regardless of your relationship status, this book declares the sufficiency and power of the Gospel of Christ to transform ourselves and our relationships so that we better reflect and share the love of Christ in all areas of our lives.